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Searching for Punchbowl

I was recently talking with a friend about creativity and its emergence. Sometimes, in writing as in any creative act, you feel a beckoning—an energy flickering and sparking somewhere in the deep—but it feels impossible to draw out. None of the usual avenues seem to work. Our conversation reminded me of an experience I had during a writing residency at PLAYA a few years back.

I was supposed to have four more days in my creative writing residency in Oregon, but with a fierce snowstorm on the way, I only had two options: leave early, or risk being snowed in well past my scheduled departure. Given that I was low on food with the nearest grocery store 30-plus miles away, my two options were whittled down to one—time to go. Problem was, I didn’t feel ready to leave. I was plagued with a single, niggling regret: I still hadn’t found the Punchbowl.

I don’t mean a serving implement for sugary spiked juice. The Punchbowl, as it’s colloquially called by the dozen or so locals who live in the area, is the result of an eons-old landslide in the escarpments that scratch the sky across Highway 33. A landmark I was told is well worth the journey it takes to see it. But I’d been searching almost every day and had become convinced that either I could not find it, or it did not exist.

To be clear, finding the Punchbowl wasn’t supposed to be my missive. I hadn’t gone to the high desert of Oregon to adventure through the mountains searching for landslides. I was supposed to be writing. But the novel I’d been working on when I was accepted to PLAYA’s residency had since stalled out, and I didn’t know what to write anymore. Worse than that, I’d started to question my creative worth. Was I really a writer? Did I deserve to be there, a member of a small cohort of writers and artists with actual-talent and actual-projects?

I’d arrived with a head full of plans and goals for three weeks of distraction-free creative immersion. But all I’d managed to do was sit beside the tall window in my cabin’s living room, studying the way the light changed in the quietly blooming hours. Clouds rippled open to sky, ice sublimed into a rainbow that lasted an entire morning, wind smudged the fog like an eraser over the landscape. Meanwhile, I doodled, wrote rambling letters, read books, and waited. Waited for the muse, for inspiration, for the glimmer of an idea. But the page before me was as blank as the darkness that settled over the landscape each night.

There was little else I could do to resolve my dilemma except to wander, searching for the Punchbowl. I set forth nearly every morning armed with a hand-drawn map a prior resident had left in the cabin’s guest book. Rather than assisting, the map seemed to prove my incapability even further. It sketched a single winding line that traced an easy path along Highway 33, through a gate, up a series of switchbacks, under a barbed wire fence, past a tall tree, and then, just before the end of the trail, the Punchbowl. You’ll know it when you see, the pseudo-cartographer promised in parenthesis.

Not so, as it turned out. On my many excursions, I’d come upon a bounty of breathtaking views and old-soul rock tumbles. I’d watched coyotes pace across a meadow, followed bear tracks and run my fingers over the scars they’d clawed into trees, and learned that deer cut a trustworthy trail to follow. But no matter how hard I looked, no matter how far I wandered, no Punchbowl. No crescent rim or hollowed curve or pool of stone, no knowing-it-when-I-saw-it. Just like the lack of words—no stories, or scenes, or fragmented lines of poetry. Just silence, inside and out.

I jogged out the backdoor of my cabin early in the morning of my final day, through thick fog still blue with the night. There were no cars on Highway 33 and the landscape was still and grey, everything pausing in anticipation of the looming storm. As I hopped over the gate to the trail, a ferruginous hawk took flight suddenly from a telephone wire above, disturbing the silence with heavy wings curved to catch the sky. An emergence, where before I had thought myself entirely alone.

A mentor once told me that creativity is like an animal. Staying hidden until it feels safe enough to risk exposure. Our job is to stay attentive and be tender. Not to force it, or chase it, or even coax it—but to wait, patiently and unblinking, for it to emerge. What looks like emptiness, what sounds like silence, is only the waiting.

Encouraged by the good omen, I headed up the fire access road, following switchbacks past a farmhouse and through a copse of charred snags and fallen pine giants burned in a recent fire. Up, up, up, until I reached the pass—a doorway into the wild. I turned around before crossing and took in the view. The morning fog lifted, revealing jagged contours of peaks and ridges. The clouds danced and parted in tumbling piles, casting streams of golden light upon the vast distance. Wind swirled through the pass, carrying the scent of snow.

Entering the mountains, the trail forked in two directions, and though I’d traveled both to their culmination—a barbed-wire fence to the north and a choke of bushes to the south—I decided to retrace my footsteps, see if I’d missed a turn-off somewhere. North first, where about a mile in I found a footpath branching from the trail that I’d never noticed before. I followed its winding contour and reached a frozen pond, rimmed with a scarlet-branched brush that lit up the grey winter like fire. Cattails shivered in the quickening wind while tiny, misty snowflakes stung my face. A beautiful discovery, and hidden, too, like a secret. If I didn’t find the Punchbowl, I told myself, this would be enough.

I circled back toward the pass, gazing at the southern fork. I needed to get back to my cabin and start packing, but I wanted one more look in the other direction. I’d already found the pond, something I hadn’t seen before. It was possible, just possible, that the Punchbowl still waited for me. The temperature was dropping, and I picked up my pace to stay warm. Skirting the edge of a hillside, with some imagination, I could almost glean the curve of a bowl-like shape beneath me. Wishful thinking. I was circling a vague geometry, and the promise—you’ll know it when you see it—remained elusive. I reached the overgrown end, defeated, and started to turn back when I saw a pile of rocks up a little hill to the side. It promised a gorgeous view, so I scrabbled through the brush and started climbing.

At our orientation dinner the first night, the residency director told us that residents are almost always taken aback by the absolute dark that cloaks the landscape each night. “You will want to find a source of light, your phone or a flashlight, but try and just be in the darkness for a bit,” she said. “Let your eyes try to adjust. See what you see.” Standing atop the rocks, I turned my face to the sky and the gathering storm. Snowflakes fell thickly, cartwheeling through the cold air like falling stars. The last angles of light broke through the billowing clouds, falling over the mountains. I closed my eyes, tasting ice in the wind, and then opened them. And that’s when I saw it.

The Punchbowl.

I stood there, upon a mound of rocks, gazing a a panorama of stone slopes. The Punchbowl encircled me. I was standing in the middle of it. I had been wandering through it all along. It was a simple matter of perspective. I had been caught blind in my perception of the Punchbowl as being something I would skirt the rim of, something I would view (as a real punchbowl) from above. But it was gazing down on me the entire time, watching me wander and wonder and lose myself in the shifting skies.

And my own creativity was, I realized, the same. Which is to say, I’d journeyed for metaphorical miles—clambering up steep rocks, bruising my shins, hacking through overgrown paths and yelling myself hoarse—searching for what to write about. What’s the story, what’s the essay, what’s the book? Where do I find it, what does it look like, how I will know when I see it?

You know the punchline, now: the story is all around us. We are journeying through it. It's just that sometimes, we get so focused on searching that we forget to notice what is right in front of our eyes.

I try and remember this, anytime I feel stuck or frustrated or lost in the dark. Whenever I'm seeking a voice, a story, an idea, a place. It's only when I pause, gaze out at the world beyond me, that light breaks through. Slowly, stumblingly, with eyes closed and fingers outstretched, I find my way through the dark. My work. My voice. No need to move quickly—time is the main ingredient. Patience. Tenderness.

The storm descended, clouds swarming the horizon, the Punchbowl glazed with a sheen of snow. It was time to go. But I would be returning with the light—like the light that you find even in the darkest of nights, the one that shows you the shape of your surroundings, the one that helps guide you home.

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